Itís been a little busy around here lately, what with the start of school and football season, and getting ready for the Brownwood Reunion Celebration, so it was time to catch up on cleaning out my e-mail.

I wonder what all Iíve missedÖ

It seems Iíve won a prize in an international sweepstakes, according to this message from two weeks ago. Wow. Itís a new BMW, direct from the factory. All I have to do is show up and pick out my color. But since I donít live in Europe, this gentleman is willing to make the arrangements, convert the emissions to U.S. requirements and ship it to Texas for me ó for a fee. A cashierís check payable in American funds in the amount of $5,000 will get the ball rolling. Hereís a message from a banker in Great Britain who handles special accounts for wealthy clients. One of his customers has passed on to his eternal reward, leaving a sizable estate but no identifiable heirs. As it happens, I am blessed to happen to have the same, and somewhat rare, surname as the deceased. Of course, the banker says, this arrangement is highly irregular and he would be subject to corporate ó if not legal ó consequences if his plan were to be disclosed. So full secrecy is vital. But if I would just step forward and file a claim as his closest relative, he would be willing to split the gentlemanís substantial estate with me. Otherwise, it will all go to the government. A reply e-mail is all thatís needed to signal my interest. How about some literature? Hereís a pitch to buy the latest in celebrity dieting, the Nicole Richie Cookbook by Hollywood publicist Robert Smith. Itís only $11.99. But if you read the fine print, you learn that itís just a series of blank pages. Ali, a woman I donít know, wrote last Saturday to tell me sheís ďa nice girl whoís tired this afternoon and would like to chat.Ē Or, I can see her pictures at a particular Web site. What a coincidence. Another woman named Coleen sent exactly the same the e-mail, with only a slightly different Web site, the day before.

What can we learn from some of this, other than my spam filter needs some adjustments? The World Wide Web is a marvelous and even now still developing medium for communication, but it has also become a popular way for criminals and shadowy business enterprises to reach out an touch people they could never find before.

According to the 2007 report of the Internet Crime Complaint Center, also known as IC3, Internet auction fraud was by far the most reported offense, comprising 44.9 percent of referred complaints. Non-delivered merchandise and/or payment accounted for 19.0 percent of complaints. Check fraud made up 4.9 percent of complaints. Credit/debit card fraud, computer fraud, confidence fraud, and financial institutions fraud round out the top seven categories of complaints referred to law enforcement during the year.

The agencyís Web page, www.fbi.gov, has a long list of ways to protect ourselves from Internet-related and promoted schemes. It also offers updates on the latest scams, which right now include a series of unsolicited fraudulent e-mails that misrepresent the FBI itself and its director. Another one involves spam e-mails which claim to be from an official of the U.S. military sent on behalf of American soldiers stationed overseas. The scam e-mails vary in content; however, the general theme of each is to request personal information and/or funds from the individual receiving the e-mail.

Perhaps youíve also received an e-mail announcing that you have a greeting card from a friend. Beware, the FBI says. The link will probably take you to a Web site that holds malicious software.

Additional information and a process for filing reports of such communications can be found at www.ic3.gov.

Deleting ó or even making arrangements to block ó e-mails from people you donít know may be a wise policy. Thatís difficult for us at the Bulletin, because we do get unsolicited and important e-mails from new correspondents every day.

But when youíre working in cyberspace, as almost all of us are these days, caution is always prudent.

Gene Deason is managing editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at gene.deason@brownwoodbulletin.com.